Running to the Empty Tomb

Preached by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas

Sermon for the Feast Day of St. John, The Beloved Disciple

Isaiah 44:1-8                                    1 John 5:1-13
Psalm 92:1-2, 11-14                           John 20:1-9

Friends, I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be back in this chapel and to share this service with you.  One of my great losses in moving away from Cambridge four years ago was the loss of easy contact with this place, and with you Brothers, and with this community of faith.  I rejoice to be with you today and to have a chance to reflect on this morning’s Gospel.

What interests me most in the scene we just heard is imagining what the beloved disciple experienced on that Easter morning.  Of course, other characters also appear in the story of the empty tomb – Mary Magdalene and Simon Peter – but it is the beloved disciple who most attracts my attention.  That is lucky for me, I guess, because he is the one whose feast day we are celebrating this morning.  But even more than that, I wonder whether his experience of the Resurrection can tell us something about our own experience of the risen Christ.  I wonder if, by imagining the experience of the beloved disciple, we can take the journey with him and discover how his encounter intersects with ours, and ours with his.

I have to tell you right off the bat that I majored in literature.  If you listen to “A Prairie Home Companion,” you know from Garrison Keillor how hapless English majors are – they’re the ones who end up lost in dead-end jobs because of their idiosyncratic interest in symbols and images and stuff like that.  English majors get no respect.  And yet, as my friend and colleague Rob Hirschfeld likes to say – (he is, by the way, a member of the Fellowship of St. John, but was unable to join us this morning) – as Rob likes to say, John’s Gospel is the gospel for English majors.  Everything in this Gospel seems to have been written for a reason – every detail counts, every repetition is deliberate, every image has some meaning to convey.

So with the zeal of an English major I roll up my sleeves and dig into this text, and, maybe because I’m not only an English major but also an Episcopal priest – and you know how we preachers love to make three points – what I notice about the beloved disciple in this passage is that he does three things.

What does he do first?  He runs.  As far as I can tell, this is the only scene in the entire Gospel of John in which anyone runs.  Elsewhere in the Gospel, people walk; they stand; they come forward; they step back; they come in; they go out.  At one point Mary of Bethany “got up quickly and went to Jesus” [John 11:29, 31] – but no one runs.

Except in this scene.  When Mary Magdalene sees that the stone has been removed from the tomb, she runs to tell Simon Peter and the beloved disciple.  When the two of them hear the news, we’re told that they “set out and went toward the tomb” – the usual pace of things in this Gospel – but suddenly in the next verse they are both running, and the beloved disciple is moving so fast, he outruns Peter and reaches the tomb first.

Running – that’s an image of urgency and eagerness, an image of a passionate, whole-body desire to come and see.  The beloved disciple wants to see what’s going on.  He wants to see if what Mary told them is true.  He can’t move quickly enough – maybe he is breathless, but he doesn’t care – he wants to make his way to the tomb as quickly as he possibly can, with no detours, no delays, no pausing to put his affairs in order first.  He knows where he needs to go and he runs.

That to me is as good an image as any of what it means to be on fire for God.  In those blessed times, we gather up all our scattered energies and we focus them on God.  We want nothing more than God, nothing less than God, nothing other than God.  We want our lives to be directed toward God, our hearts to be turning toward God, our prayer to be focused on God.  Nothing else is enough.
That holy fire blazed up in all of us at one point or another in our lives, or we wouldn’t find ourselves here this morning.  The decision to explore a monastic vocation, the decision to make a life profession, the decision to commit oneself to the Fellowship of St. John – all these decisions came out of some experience of clarity and fervor in which we saw that we wanted our lives to head toward God.  Every time we sit down to pray and touch that deep longing for God, we become the beloved disciple and we start to run to the tomb.

But let me add this.  Like the beloved disciple, what we will find, we don’t know.  How God will show up, we don’t know.   Whether God will show up, we don’t know.  Whether we’ll recognize the signs of God’s presence when God comes, we don’t know.  We run because we thirst for God, but what we will find we can’t possibly predict or control.  As we run, we must drop our expectations behind us, as a runner sheds the stuff she’s carrying so that she can be lighter on her feet.  Let your prayer be fervent and pure – that’s what the disciple says to me as he runs.  But don’t imagine for a moment that we can know in advance what we’ll find.  The mystery of the living God can never be grasped or tamed, never locked away in a box – or a tomb.  When we run toward God, we always run toward the unknown.

So that’s the first thing.  And here’s the second: when the beloved disciple reaches the tomb, the Gospel tells us, “he bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in” [John 20:5].  Now that’s a curious moment.  The beloved disciple wants so eagerly to see that he runs, but when he actually gets there, he pauses at the doorway and does not enter.  The text seems to highlight this move – or, I should say, lack of movement – by contrasting it with what Peter does.  When Peter reaches the tomb, he heads straight in.

Why does the beloved disciple pause at the doorway?  Of course the Gospel never tells us, so we can imagine whatever we like.  Did he simply need to catch his breath after running so hard?  Did he suddenly get fearful or timid and feel a need to hold back?   Either of these is possible, of course, but I’m going to argue for something else.  I think the beloved disciple stopped at the doorway because he wanted to gaze.  He saw the same thing that Peter saw – the linen wrappings lying there, as if Jesus’ body had somehow released itself from the wrappings without disturbing them – but unlike Peter, the beloved disciple stopped to gaze.  He needed not just to see, but to see deeply.

When it comes to prayer, we need ardor, yes; we need fervor – of course.  But we also need to gaze.  We need to be willing to give prayer some time, to let it unfold, to let a deeper truth come forward and to speak in silence to our hearts.  How can we take something in if we only give it the quickest of glances?  How can we apprehend the holy Mystery, the living Presence, if we treat it like a drive-by fast food joint – drop by, place our order, and go?  God doesn’t work like that.  Prayer takes patience – even if several of the latest books on prayer are sub-titled “101 Quick Ways to Pray,” “Quick Prayers for Compassionate Caregivers,” “Quick Prayers for Determined Dieters,” “Quick Prayers for New Moms,” and so on.  There is certainly a place and a need for quick prayers, no doubt about it.   And yet the beloved disciple reminds me that if I really want to see, if I really want to perceive the Risen Christ and to be drawn into the living Mystery of God, then I must pause at the doorway to gaze.  As a friend of mine says about prayer, “Don’t quit five minutes before the miracle.”

Prayer can’t be hurried any more than love can be hurried.  When my son Sam was a boy, we had a nighttime ritual of saying the Lord’s Prayer and then exchanging the words “I love you” several times – “I love you,”  “I love you, too” – back and forth.   Not only did we have to say it over and over several times – these had to be the last words that Sam heard before he went to sleep.

One night I finally admitted to myself that I found this repeated verbal dance rather tedious.  “Why do we have to keep repeating ‘I love you’ over and over?” I asked my son.  “Why can’t we just say it once?”
Sam’s answer was disarmingly simple. “I want to feel it inside me before I go to sleep.”

Ah, don’t we all.  There are times when God calls us to run hard and fast, but there are times when love asks us to linger and go slow.  To say, “I love you” with complete attention.  To say it a million times over, if we need to, until we and the other person are laughing with joy and those three small words can hardly contain the love that has poured into the room.  To hear God say it to us again and again until divine love has penetrated the dry soil of our hearts and we spring up, as Isaiah says, “like willows by flowing streams” [Isaiah 44:4].

The beloved disciple is willing to wait and to gaze without grasping, until at last he feels drawn to step inside.  And that is the third thing he does.  He “went in” – that is, he stepped into the Mystery – and he “saw and believed”  [John 20:8].  The Fourth Gospel uses the word “believe” a full 96 times, and the Gospel’s whole purpose is to invite its readers to do what the beloved disciple did: to see and believe, and so to live, to receive everlasting life.

What do you think it looked like when the beloved disciple saw and believed?  Did his face begin to shine?  Did tears of joy spring to his eyes?  Did he throw his arms wide and begin to dance?  We don’t know what he did.  What would you do?

His journey is our journey, for the story of our faith may well have the same three markers along the way that his does – we run toward the sacred unknown because we want to see; we pause at the doorway because we see but also need to gaze; we enter inside and now see and believe.

I must say a word about the final sentence in this passage, the comment that “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that [Jesus] must rise from the dead” [John 20:9].  There is a wonderful freshness to the experience of the beloved disciple.  He is the first to believe in the risen Jesus, but he does so not because believing this fits with what the Scripture says, or because he has figured anything out intellectually.  His direct religious experience comes first.  Later he will have a chance to think about it, because language comes later, and thought comes later – for now, he is simply immersed in the kind of innocent, fresh, direct perception that is ours in prayer when language and thought fall away and we find ourselves contemplating the holy Mystery in silence.

I must end by thanking the Brothers of SSJE, these dear friends of mine and friends of yours who have helped us and so many others to connect with the beloved disciple: to claim our own desire to run toward God, to spend time gazing, and to step forward and enter the holy Mystery so that we too may see and believe in our risen Lord.  The retreats and spiritual direction that we find here; the sacred spaces; the sacraments and services of worship; the friendship and companionship along the way; the Rule of Life that supports us as a trellis supports a climbing rose – all these have inspired and strengthened us in our journey into the heart of God.

And now, of course, you and I have a chance to give something back: to help the Brothers re-build these beautiful spaces, to offer them not just our moral and spiritual but also our financial support, to become enthusiastic contributors to their new building campaign, “Stone and Light.”  I can’t imagine what my own journey in faith would have been like without these dear colleagues and friends, these mentors and allies in the quest for God.   I give thanks for you Brothers, and for this assembled community that seeks, as the beloved disciple once sought, to be faithful friends of Jesus and to bear passionate witness to his living presence in the world.

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